In my mini review I posted to Twitter the other day I claimed that Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the best action films I’ve ever seen, and, moreover, that director George Miller proves that monuments of cinematic splendor are still possible. This statement involves at least two main suppositions. The first is that few films of late have been spectacular, and second, perhaps the most in need of an explanation, is that this film is spectacular.
As to the first point, I have been worried lately whether I had passed the age of optimistic participation in summer escapist cinema. This summer’s other big blockbuster, Avengers: Age of Ultron, left me decidedly unimpressed, despite its CG-fueled visual spectacle (especially in the way the plot structure borrows liberally from the The Empire Strikes Back, from the downbeat tone, to the continual pursuit of our heroes by a sinister, fascistic overlord, to the none-too-carefully inserted romance–hell, both films even feature a besieged city in the clouds as their climax!). The astounding degree to which I enjoyed Mad Max: Fury Road, however, confirms for me that though my standards may be demanding, they are not unreachable. Fury Road is that rare entertainment that excites its audience without pandering to it. Unlike a great many films these days, Fury Road seems directed by an individual vision that is staggering in its scope, rather than the consolidated whims of executive meddling and countless focus tests.
The first clue that the film doesn’t insult the intelligence of its viewer is with the title itself: Fury Road is double-entendre that even a cursory viewing of the film would reveal. The subtitle hints that the film belongs as much to Max as it does to Charlize Theron’s Furiosa. Perhaps even more so to the latter, since Theron receives a great deal more to do in this film than Hardy’s Max, who isn’t even granted a line until midway into the film, and much of the dramatic heft rests on her more-than-capable shoulders. It is she who often commands both our attention and sympathies in their scenes together. In the process, Theron reminds us of the immeasurable talent that made her such a superstar, and DP John Seale mines her face for all its expressive riches.
Though not an obvious sequel, this film nonetheless continues the themes of myth and legend that had animated the two previous films in the series, and Miller here broadens their scope to a veritable foundation myth of human society, but places the emphasis on the female and the feminine. In so doing, Miller transcends the nihilism of his previous films and dares to hope for a future better the past. The film’s final moments capture Miller’s vision of a true egalitarianism between sexes, creeds, races and class. And yet, because this is Miller telling (and in some ways yelling) the story, he reminds us that this utopia can only be achieved through violent struggle, and through a balance of the masculine and feminine, which are denoted so concisely and repeatedly by Miller through the use of sand and water. In so doing, Miller may have just created the first truly feminist action film.
Perhaps the film’s chief virtue comes from Miller’s singular ability to sustain our attention for chase scenes that extend well past the point of fatigue. That, or the unmistakable fact that it’s all being done for real, in the camera. Don’t let the spectacular CG sandstorm touted so frequently in the trailer mislead you, this film features the most impressive practical stunts of any Mad Max film. (It also even manages to outdo their sustained runtime.) But these films aren’t memorable simply because they have lots of car chases, but rather for way these cars are so uniquely used. In Miller’s films, action is not a mere substitute for dialogue and characterization, it is the skillful deployment of these. In much the same way that a choreographer communicates through dance, Miller speaks through action. Like the Road Warrior, and completely unlike the hyper-edited Furious series, this film features sublimely orchestrated automotive ballet, or, to offer a clunky neologism, automoballet. It’s perhaps ironic that Miller, now pushing 70, seems one of the only directors capable of directing action and editing it together quite so spectacularly, seamlessly, and most important of all, coherently.
But what gives the film its most lasting effect is that Miller goes beyond mere mayhem and uses every texture, object and element of the world to convey multiple layers of meaning. Cars serve as costumes. Costumes serves as identities. A steering wheel is a weapon is a talisman is a relic is a metonym for an entire culture, and all of this conveyed with the simplicity of a dramatic arm raise. More than mere clever prop design, and the desire for a cool but entirely superfluous shot, the raising of the wheel aloft like some mechanic’s Excalibur immediately and unmistakably constructs this world for us within a second of screen time, and the film lasts for thousands. Another instance of this masterful method of world-building again involves a wheel, when Furiosa rubs the steering shaft for axle grease and smears this across her forehead as a tribal marking, or a communicative address, or something else–the two-fingered gesture itself seems symbolic of something richer in meaning and all of which Miller leaves for the audience to deduce.
Miller’s responses in the wonderfully brief pre-screening Q&A I attended perfectly speak to the film’s succinct and evocative construction. After a pitiful attempt from the professional film critic and impromptu questioner to plug his online site and drum up enthusiasm for his credentials, he then tried to corral Miller into answering a few questions. When asked why it had taken thirty years for Max to return, the director only shrugged and said, respectfully and serenely, that he’d been looking for something to say with Max in that time. When asked what that might be, the director only shrugged again and suggested the message was on the screen. “I feel like a kid who’s just finished a drawing, who takes it to his mom and dad and asks them to look at it,” he replied. “Well,” he gestured to the massive AVX screen towering above him about to show his glorious return to the franchise that made him famous, “this is my drawing, I wonder what you think.” The concise response seems fitting for a director whose movie strips itself of language, in which words are irrelevant and, moreover, even what few can be heard are often swallowed up in the clash of metal and the cry of engines and living gods. Mad Max: Fury Road opens May 15, and truly deserves to be remembered for a great while after.